By: Lydia Walters, CCC, PHR,MIP Communication and Human Resources Manager, Dixie Electric Power Assn.
In 2005, Dixie Electric Power Association's electrical system was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Randy Smith was the distribution engineer at the time and oversaw power restoration in the Waynesboro district. Dixie Electric's efforts were equivalent to other electric cooperatives, completing power restoration in 21 days. The one communicator was overwhelmed with feeding and housing the line crews and could not effectively communicate with the local media. This lack of communication frustrated the members and damaged Dixie Electric's reputation.
J.C. Brown Communication Leadership Award winner Randy Smith became general manager of Dixie Electric in 2011. From the time he was named general manager, he committed to promoting the cooperative and being transparent with the employees, directors, and members.
In 2011, Dixie Electric's external communication included the monthly member newspaper Today in Mississippi, newspaper advertising, and a static website, dixieepa.com. The only internal piece was a quarterly employee newsletter, the Dixie Digest.
The following communication pieces or events have either been added or expanded under Randy's guidance: events to educate the media, crisis communication plan, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, prepared dixieepa.com for outage information, a strategic digital advertising plan, virtual annual meeting, general manager's monthly column to the members in the Today in Mississippi magazine and Cooperative University for the youth leadership program.
Dixieepa.com has been expanded to include energy calculators, pay online, outage maps, etc. Internally, the employee newsletter, the Dixie Digest, has increased from four to six editions annually, and all employees receive a weekly e-newsletter. There are video boards in the office lobbies for messaging to members and in the employees' breakrooms and warehouses.
In addition to his communication efforts, Randy has also encouraged strategic planning at both a departmental and a cooperative-wide level and participated in media relations and crisis communication training.
In June 2019, Randy participated in a strategic planning session with the communication department, focusing on community relations. Member satisfaction research showed Dixie Electric's community relations were not resonating with the membership. The strategic plan, scheduled for 2020, was aimed to change that. As you can imagine, many of those events and plans were put on hold due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions. They will come to the forefront again as restrictions are lifted.
Randy also has been very involved with promoting high-speed internet within Dixie Electric's service area in the past year and continues to present to elected officials, the local news media, and others about the need for high-speed internet in rural areas.
Hurricane Katrina impacted south Mississippi in so many ways. For Randy, it profoundly influenced his view on member and employee communication and the need for a strategic approach.